This one was not on my radar at all, but I noticed a few people enthusing about it on social media and decided to give it a try. I’m very glad that I did.
The Space Between Worlds is a debut science fiction story by a Californian writer called Micaiah Johnson. It could, at a pinch, be described as being part of the current wave of lesbian time travel stories. It certainly features a dysfunctional lesbian relationship. However, the travel is not through time, but between worlds in the multiverse. Strictly speaking, it is much more in conversation with the Ted Chiang novella, “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”.
The story is set in a fairly near future Earth on which Adam Bosch of the Eldridge Institute has discovered a way to travel between worlds in the multiverse. You can only move between worlds that are fairly closely related (so no going to a world where Rome never fell, or dinosaurs still exist), but there is a snag. You can only travel to worlds in which you do not exist. If you arrive in a world in which another version of yourself is alive, you will die.
Our heroine, Cara, is a “traverser”, one of the people employed by Eldridge to travel between worlds to study them, and occasionally steal from them. She has the job because few of the 382 accessible worlds contain a local Cara. While Eldridge has its offices in a wealthy futuristic city called Wiley, Cara comes from a slum settlement called Ashtown that exists in the desert outside Wiley City. Her mother is a sex worker and drug addict. On most Earths she hasn’t lived to adulthood. As she notes, this makes her a rare resource that Eldridge finds valuable.
The book is in part a meditation on nature and nurture. While many of the characters have versions of themselves in multiple worlds, they are by no means identical. Someone who is a ruthless gang leader in one world can be a thoughtful politician in another. Someone who is a lesbian in one world can be violently homophobic in another. Much of how someone turns out is dependent on choices made in youth, accidents of fate, and upbringing.
Where biology comes in is that each version of you in every world looks pretty much the same. I’ll leave you to put two and two together here.
The other main theme of the book is privilege. Cara knows that coming from Ashtown she will never be seen as an equal by the Wiley City folks, no matter how much of a well-paid job she has. In many ways she’s right, but her knowing this also makes her very prickly and difficult to get on with, which doesn’t help. It is a position I can sympathise with. The stark contrast between the wealth (and social safety net) in Wiley City, and the poverty and violence of Ashtown, plays out in many other ways in the book.
I note also that the madam of the brothel where Cara’s mother worked, who is an important political figure in Ashtown, is a genderqueer person called Exlee. They are a fairly minor character, but very welcome nonetheless.
I think by the end I didn’t care enough about Cara to be invested in the outcome, but other people clearly love the book, and I can’t help but admire the ingenuity of it all. It is great to see such an interesting debut science fiction novel. I will look forward to seeing what Johnson does next.
Title: The Space Between Worlds
By: Micaiah Johnson
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton